Had you been around, back in your grandparents’ day, and had you asked them, “What does it mean to be gay?” Most probably gram and gramps would have answered something like this: “To be gay means to be merry, in a lively mood, full of joy and carefree.”
Well, their response would probably have been less formal, but you get the idea. Your youthful grandma and grandpa would not have answered: “It means to have a same gender sexual orientation.”
Well, it’s not your grandparents’ day – it is your own. And in your day, the word “gay” is so closely associated with meaning homosexual and lesbian; most people are reluctant to use its original, traditional meaning.
But why are do they call us gay? Why weren’t we labeled “dran, or even “frayg?”? Do they call us gay because our community is especially lively, merry, and carefree? Or is something else responsible for the unusual moniker?
Exactly how did a word that our grandparents thought of as meaning, lively, merry, and carefree, come to define a person’s sexual orientation?
The “gay” label was a long time coming, with the word evolving slowly, and through several centuries.
Many people point to the 1960s as the decade when gay first morphed from its original happy-go-lucky definition, into a tag that indicated a person with a same gender sexual orientation.
People who hold that belief is both right and wrong.
“How so?” you ask. Although it is true that it wasn’t until the 1960s’ sexual revolution that the word “gay” became virtually synonymous with homosexuality and lesbianism, “gay” had long before taken on a secondary libidinous connotation.
As early as the seventeenth century, the Oxford English Dictionary offered this definition of the three-letter-word that our community shanghaied from past generations: “addicted to social pleasures and dissipations. Of loose and immoral life.” That was the alternate definition that followed the merry primary meaning back in that eighteenth-century dictionary.
Certainly the homophobic, sexually repressed, mid twentieth century American culture that confiscated Gay, rebranding this lively word to mean homosexual or lesbian, believed our community to be “addicted to social pleasures,” and “living a loose and immoral life.”
Search your own long-term memory to see if it yields results for the terms “gay blade,” and “gay as a goose.” Both expressions were in literature, as well as in popular use, long before the hippie-trippy 1960s.
But, as they say on television, “Wait! There’s more.”
That carefree three-letter word continued to rack up sexual meanings as the years came and went. By the nineteenth century, the word “gay” had come to mean “a female prostitute,” and when a person was said to “gay it,” the meaning was clear: “the person who had “gayed it” had partaken of sexual intercourse.
In the United States, we trace gay’s homosexual meaning all the way back to the Great Depression. Back then, in the 1930s, the term “gay cat,” had been coined to mean, “a homosexual boy.”
It was only a hop, swish, and a camp, from the “gay cat” of the FDR era to author-activist Peter Wildeblood’s comment in his 1955, Against Law, in which the Anglo-Canadian activist-author wrote, “Most of the arresting officers had been ‘gay’…an American euphemism for homosexual.”
We were rebranded: “Gay,” long before the 1960s’ Sexual Revolution, and years, before Leave it to Beaver, premiered on television.
And there you have it: How a once merry, carefree, and happy-go-lucky three-letter word morphed into a label for people who, these days, dare to speak its name.